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Tuesday May 12, 2009 2:29 PM

Bombs Away!

Rockets ready to unleash another three-point barrage on Lakers

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Los Angeles - Shane Battier is on a roll.

He’s reminiscing about his senior season at Duke, a year which would culminate with him finally attaining his long-desired goal of winning a national championship. He has no doubt told this story too many times to count, but that fact alone does nothing to detract from the smile on his face or the gleam in his eye.

Battier recounts this tale with extreme pride, and deservingly so. For though that particular Duke team was supremely talented – boasting future NBA players like Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jay Williams and Chris Duhon – there was a time when some doubted and even dismissed his Blue Devils’ status as true title contenders.

Looking back, it seems laughable that anyone would openly disregard such a stacked roster. But on February 27, 2001 – five days before Duke’s regular season finale – a seemingly disastrous twist of fate gave birth to a whole host of doubters. Battier played his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium that day and it was certainly memorable - just for all the wrong reasons. Not only did Duke suffer the ignominy of falling on its home floor to rival Maryland, but the Blue Devils also lost Boozer to a broken foot. His absence promised to leave Duke painfully vulnerable in the low-post. So, like all other creatures subject to the whims of cold, cruel evolution, the Blue Devils were forced to either adapt or die. They chose the former. And the result speaks for itself.

“You have to understand, Boozer was our only post player,” recalls Battier. “People just wrote us off. They said, ‘Boozer’s out. Duke is done.’

“We had a six o’clock practice the next morning after the loss and Coach K came in and said, ‘We’re changing our style. We’re going to shoot nothing but threes. Our goal is to shoot 30 to 40 three-pointers.’

“We played North Carolina in our season finale. They were top-ten, this was for the ACC championship and we were big underdogs, so we totally changed our style. The first drill we did, we put ten minutes on the clock and we shot nothing but threes the entire time, trying to see how many we could make in that amount of time. That was the mentality: Attack, attack, attack – three, three, three. If you missed, just shoot again. We did that at the beginning of practice, the middle of practice and the end of practice for three days straight so that by the time we got to the Carolina game, we were all laughing because we all walked off the bus like we had this secret that no one knew.

“Everyone was saying we were dead, it was going to be a romp. Carolina had bigs like Brendan Haywood. Without Boozer, we couldn’t compete with their size. But we came out and just shot three after three after three and won by 14 points – it wasn’t even close. It worked beautifully. They never knew what hit ‘em.”

Battier’s tale isn’t unique, of course. In fact, it precisely highlights the same sort of theme which lies at the heart of Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant new feature on the art of the upset. The article argues that if David fights Goliath on the giant’s terms, Goliath will win nearly every time. But by bending the rules and defying convention, Davids everywhere can tilt the odds in their favor. It’s a reality witnessed not just in the Biblical narrative, but also on battlefields and basketball courts throughout history, as Gladwell so expertly points out.

All of which brings us to the reason behind Battier’s stroll down memory lane. Eight years after his Duke team overcame the loss of its best post player by unleashing a steady barrage of three-pointers, he finds himself in an eerily similar situation. Yao Ming is out, having been betrayed once again by a fractured foot. His absence leaves the Rockets woefully undersized; especially against a Lakers squad which boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to height and length up front.

Not surprisingly, Houston – having already entered its series with LA as decided underdogs - was instantly counted out the moment Yao’s injury news began circulating. Yet just like Battier’s Blue Devils, the Rockets immediately changed gears and shifted tactics, and the Lakers never knew what hit them. Featuring a starting line-up in which its tallest player was a mere 6-9, Houston dominated Game 4 by eschewing size for speed and quickness – and shooting lots and lots of threes. By changing direction midstream, the Rockets have stated their refusal to play by Goliath’s rules. They will do everything possible to fight the battle on their terms while accepting the results which follow. It’s admirable, sure. But in truth, they have no other choice.

“We can’t line up Ohio St. versus Michigan style and go student body left and student body right against this team,” admits Battier. “They’re more talented than we are, they’re bigger and more athletic. We have to make it a little bit more unconventional, we have to shoot more threes to make up possessions, we have to create some turnovers, take care of the ball and we have to make it a different game for us to level the playing field. But for us to play a different game, it’s not totally out of character – we have guys who can do it. So it’s not asking the impossible, we just have to understand where our strengths are and play to those.

“We need to shoot 30 or 40 threes. That’s how we’ll try to make up the last points Yao brought. We know we have to do that out of necessity. We have to do those things to stay in the ball game.”

Already the naysayers have lined up to write off Game 4 as a fluke or aberration; nothing more than a speed bump on the Lakers’ predetermined path to the NBA Finals. LA was caught off guard they say. Lightning won’t strike twice. Reality will sink in soon enough. But Battier has heard those exact same doom and gloom warnings before.

“People told us (back in 2001), ‘You can only play that way for one game; you won’t be able to do it for three games in three days.’ But we did the same thing and won the ACC tournament. We just had so much confidence and we didn’t care about the consequences of missing. It was pretty amazing.”

And therein lies the key to the Rockets’ own version of free-wheeling, three-stroking small-ball: Having already been counted out, pressure is now a thing of the past. The Rockets can bomb away with impunity. If Battier or another Houston gunner has 15 open looks from beyond the arc, rest assured 15 attempts will be taken.

“We have a free mentality,” says Battier with the relaxed confidence of a man who knows he’s playing with house money. “Every shot that we take is a free shot. If it goes in, great – if not, we tried. We have nothing to lose. No one expects anything out of us. We’re going to take our shots, play hard and take our chances.”

Armed with that devil-may-care mentality, the Rockets’ slingshots remain locked and loaded, ready to repeatedly open fire on Goliath from 23 feet, 9 inches away. The Philistines are smirking now to be sure. That’s what they do. But when those stones start hitting their mark, they pack quite a punch and those smirks quickly become scowls.

Battier has witnessed that phenomenon firsthand. He smiles, recalling the "secret" his team carried while getting off the bus that fateful day. The memory continues to resonate, a full eight years after the fact. It's still just as sweet - still just as poignant. What's more, it reminds him that when he gets off the Rockets' team bus this evening, he'll have very good reason to smile once more.

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